There can be little doubt that, in terms of just singers, the girls have the edge over the boys. The boys might make up the majority of the rock and other bands. But, for stand-alone singers, the girls excel.
But, trying to decide on the best female singers I have ever heard gives me a few problems. How far in time do I go back? Does the genre have an impact? Am I going to consider the new pretenders to the crown?
Some singers have made a name for themselves but in limited fields. They do what they do very well, but it is a very similar style every time. Does that make them one of the best when compared to the very best? I don’t think so. They still have a way to go yet.
So, for this list…
I have included what I consider to be “The Greatest Female Singers.” Those that have made an impact, and in some cases, still do. They showed real quality and control in what they do and what they did. Those that are respected in music. Let’s start with the mighty…
Top 22 Best Female Singers
One of the best and most recognizable female Country singers we have. Her Tennessee accent and use of controlled vibrato stood out from the rest.
“Jolene” was an early success that brought her international fame. The fingerpicking guitar part by Chip Young helped this track to achieve legendary status both within country music and in a wider circle.
“Jolene” was written after going to the bank and watching the bank clerk flirting with her husband. It was released in 1973 and was also the title track of an album called Jolene. The single did well in the UK, where it went to #7 but only made #60 on the American chart.
More than just a country singer…
She was also a very good songwriter. She wrote this classic which Whitney Houston also recorded. Although I have to say, I have always preferred the simplicity of Parton’s version.
Various surgeries she has had have meant plenty of criticism over the years. I prefer to concentrate on another side of Dolly, the one that gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to charities. A few others can learn from that activity.
And what many people like about her is that she doesn’t take herself too seriously. There are plenty of divas around, but Dolly isn’t one of them. To her, it’s the music that counts, and she has produced more than enough over many years to warrant a place here.
Whitney Houston would have been many people’s choice as one of the Top 10 female singers. And probably at the top end of that section.
There is no doubt she had a great voice, and that showed through on tracks like “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” And another disco-like dance hit, “How Will I Know.”
Both songs, of course, were popular, and it’s not surprising. Good songs and good production, and she delivered a great performance on both.
Another side to Whitney Houston…
Her delivery of the song “One Moment in Time” put her among some of the best female singers around. But, it is for her cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” that most will remember her.
She delivered a powerful performance, especially in the key change where her first note showed her real quality. Everything was right about her delivery, except for one thing. For me, she overdid it a bit too much.
Maybe a little too much of what is called “Coloratura.” That is embellishing the basic tune with vocal runs and trills. The improvisations were overpowering at times and detracted from the beauty of the song. Most won’t agree, but for me, she tried to climb a bit too far up the emotional ladder on this one.
Gone Too Early
Born in New Jersey in 1963, her sudden death at age 49 left a void in her style of singing that no one has yet filled.
Best known for her association with Fleetwood Mac, of course. Although, she had already built a reputation with Lindsey Buckingham before then. Buckingham was offered the guitar job with Mac and agreed to take it if they took Stevie as well.
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, she had a different voice. There was a mystical, almost “witchy” feel to it. And she played up to that image with her stage clothes and persona. Especially when the flavor of the song suited it, as was the case with the song “Rhiannon.”
The song was taken from the first album she recorded with them, simply called Fleetwood Mac, released in 1975. Their next album, Rumours, was recorded amid intrigues and personality problems within the band. It reached #1 in the UK, America, and half a dozen other countries.
The days of Mac were numbered, though…
They released the next album, Tusk, to lukewarm appreciation. It was clear the band was near the end. Despite this, it still reached #1 in the UK and #4 in America. But, it didn’t chart well elsewhere.
However, on this album were, in my opinion, two of her finest recordings with the band. Both of them still played up to this “witch queen” image but sang as only she could. Firstly, “Sisters of the Moon,” and then the more sympathetic and quite sad, “Storms.”
To learn more about all the great songs that the band produced, check out our articles on the Best Fleetwood Mac Songs.
Whether she was fired from Fleetwood Mac or not is open to conjecture. However, once out of the band, she still carried on producing some great material. A particularly good track was “Edge Of Seventeen,” taken from her album, Bella Donna, which reached #4 in America.
Also from the above album was the track “Leather and Lace.” This was a duet with Don Henley of The Eagles, with whom she had a brief relationship.
She was still performing until recently. She is one of the best female singers and performers I have ever seen, if at times a little narrow in her style.
Diana Ross arrived on the scene as the lead singer with The Supremes, who became one of the biggest girl groups of the 60s. They were Motown’s most successful group during this period.
The Supremes had their first #1 in 1964 with “Where Did Our Love Go.” This was followed by a string of number ones. Her last single with The Supremes was in 1970, “Someday We’ll Be Together.”
Whilst the voice was special, the personality wasn’t. From a very early stage, she started to dominate the other two members, even to the point of interrupting them when interviewers’ questions were addressed to Florence and Mary.
Towards the end…
It was only Ross’s voice used on the tracks, plus a couple of session singers. Florence Ballard was removed from the group in 1967 and thereafter suffered from alcoholism. She died aged 32.
Ever trying to upstage everyone else, Ross put on one of her histrionic performances of pretend grief at the funeral. The Village Voice newspaper called her behavior appalling.
Nevertheless, the hits kept rolling in and still do. She is one of the most successful female singers in terms of sales in the modern era.
She might be only five feet three inches tall, but she has a voice with more power than most. Born in Neath, Wales, she released some singles and an album in the late 70s. “It’s a Heartache” reached #4 in the UK and #3 in America.
But, it was her association with Jim Steinman that brought her attention. Their association gave her her biggest success with “Total Eclipse Of The Heart.” That was taken from the best-selling album Faster Than the Speed of Night.
Her work with Jim Steinman also brought her another hit record with “Holding Out for a Hero,” which features in the movie “Footloose” from 1984.
She is still working today…
Her latest album was released in 2021, The Best is Yet to Come. As a title, it is probably not quite accurate, given what has gone before. But, she is still able to produce a great performance. A unique, one-of-a-kind voice that is worthy of a place among the best female singers.
Space is always at a premium for these lists, and there are so many still to include. So, let’s make a brief mention of some of the girls who deserve to be here.
…became a phenomenon very quickly. She tends not to try some of the vocal tricks of the trade but keeps it simple. That blues-like voice usually does the trick in creating a great performance. Her album, 21, placed her firmly on the map as one of the great female singers.
In many ways, one of the great unknown singers, but a brilliant voice. Born in Sunderland, in the UK, she also has a unique-sounding voice.
She arrived in 2011 with her distinctive deep soprano voice and scored a big hit with “Read All About It.” That song was taken from the album, Our Version Of Events. She sang at both the opening and closing ceremonies of the London Olympics in 2012.
Not much needs to be said about Kate Bush. You can sum her up in three words. A Unique genius. No one else sounds or writes music quite like her.
She was discovered by Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour, who helped her along the way. Her first single, “Wuthering Heights,” in 1978, reached #1 in the UK. That track was taken from the album, The Kick Inside.
Twenty-five of her singles has reached the Top 40 in the UK. She was awarded a CBE for her services to music. The combination of her voice, the music, dance, and mime stood her out from the rest.
Amy Winehouse was only with us for a very short time, yet she left a small but brilliant legacy of music. Modern, classical, rhythm and blues, and jazz are all mixed together. She gained such a reputation so quickly that Tony Bennett wanted to do a duet with her.
Winehouse was more than just a singer. She was a member of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra at a young age and became a respected songwriter. Her album, Back To Black, released in 2006, became one of the UK’s biggest-selling albums in history.
Tragically her addictions plagued her life, and she died aged 27 of an alcohol overdose in 2011.
Canadian singer, Shania Twain, was initially thought of as a Country artist. However, she partly discarded that image with her album, Come On Over. Released in 1997, it has been affirmed as the biggest selling album by a solo female singer by Guinness World Records.
Showing her versatility as a singer and writer…
In one breath, singing touching love songs like “From This Moment On.” The next, writing and singing about women’s issues and raising awareness of violence with “Black Eyes, Blue Tears.” And then, turning on the Rock n Roll in “Rock This Country!“
She may have been considered just a Country artist. But, she showed in her singing and songwriting she is so much more than that.
Barbra Streisand has enjoyed a career that has lasted six decades. She has had success as a recording artist, actress, and filmmaker. She has sold over 150 million records worldwide. This makes her one of the biggest selling female artists ever.
She has topped the album charts on numerous occasions with albums like The Way We Were. Her film “Yentl” in 1984 saw her become the first woman to write, direct, produce and act in a major film production.
Although more than a singer, we shouldn’t overlook a voice that at times was packed with natural emotion, grace, and great tone.
It seems like Cher has been around forever. Since her early days and that first hit record with then-husband Sonny Bono, “I Got You, Babe,” she has come a long way.
Her dark and husky contralto voice has been heard now for decades, and it is a voice you never tire of hearing. Upon listening to her back catalog, she has probably gotten better with age.
In later years…
She has produced some great tracks, “If I Could Turn Back Time” is just one. And still, she is treading the boards. Not a bad actress either when considering her performance in “Moonstruck.”
Elaborate hairdos, outrageous at times clothing, great songs, and a great voice. That might explain her longevity.
If there is one that has to be on a list of the best female singers, it is Aretha Franklin. Known as the “Queen of Soul,” she took her gospel background and became the most famous female soul singer on the planet.
Power and passion…
Both were there when she sang, which was still evident fifty years after we first heard her. And, all this despite having two children by the age of 14. Aretha was not only a great singer but a born fighter.
For most people, she arrived on the scene with songs like “Respect.” And produced other great songs early in her career, such as “I Say a Little Prayer.”
Her last public concert was in 2017 at the Ravinia Festival. Her last public performance was at Elton John’s Gala for his AIDS foundation in New York, also in 2017. She died of cancer in 2018 and left a body of work that is her legacy. Truly, one of the greats.
This has not been an easy task. There have been too many greats to look at and listen to. I am sure I may have missed some you might have thought to have been included.
The obvious exceptions are some of the newer singers. They are yet to earn their spurs, in my opinion, good as some are at the moment and have been. So, let’s move on to my Top Ten.
Dusty made her name in the “Swinging Sixties,” but she was so much more than just a Pop singer. Born into a musical family, she first appeared in her professional group, The Lana Sisters. A few years later, she formed The Springfields with her brother Tom and Tim Field.
They saw some success in the UK with their song, “Island Of Dreams,” which reached #5, and surprisingly in America with their cover of “Silver Threads And Golden Needles.”
She went solo in 1963, and her first release was an instant success. “I Only Want To Be With You” was an uptempo Pop song with full backing. That reached #4 in the UK and was also one of six releases that made the Top 40 in America.
The hit just kept coming…
But, there was a change in style and pace. “Stay Awhile” had a similar feel to “I Only Want To Be With You” in that it was uptempo and very “Pop-orientated.” The change of style and pace came with a big ballad in “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me.” Also, her mood was changing.
She loved Soul Music and took a major career risk with her song, “Son of a Preacher Man.” That was taken from her album, Dusty In Memphis, which confirmed her credentials as one of the best of her time.
She had become the Queen of what was called “Blue-eyed Soul,” and you couldn’t mistake either the voice or the look. Blond beehive hairdos, heavy black eyeliner, dramatic hand gesticulations, she looked like what she was, a star.
On both sides of the Atlantic…
She had hits in the UK with “In The Middle Of Nowhere” and a great ballad, “Goin’ Back,” written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin. In America, she hit big with another Burt Bacharach song, “The Look Of Love.”
Her career fluctuated in the 80s and 90s, but in 1994, while recording in Nashville, she was taken ill. She came home, and it was found she had breast cancer.
Extensive chemotherapy treatment forced it into remission, but it returned in 1996. She died in Henley-on-Thames in England on March 2, 1999, just before her 60th birthday.
How Good Was She?
She had a timeless quality to her unmistakable voice, and it is still a joy to listen to today. Her tone was rich and sensual. Elton John said of her, “I might be biased, but she was the greatest white singer there has ever been.” Praise indeed.
This will be a surprise to some people, but Cleo Laine was one of the great singers. In terms of a “live performance,” she was the best I ever heard. But then, I didn’t hear Ella or Billie live. Her version of “Summertime” that I heard one night sent chills down my spine.
Cleo could be just sensational. She had a voice that was so husky and deep it made you wonder where it came from. She was a contralto, which is usually a woman’s lowest range. But, her three-octave range allowed her to comfortably reach the ‘G’ above the ‘High C.’
A steady stream of powerful performances…
She was married to jazz musician Johnny Dankworth. And, through The Beatles’ explosion of the 60s and into the 70s, they were still popular. Others faded away, but Cleo Laine and her husband were always around producing great music.
In particular, she always produced a great performance when singing songs from Steven Sondheim. She also got to work with the Duke Ellington Orchestra producing, Solitude, a stunning album.
A great voice, she was able to produce outstanding performances in a range of genres which gives her a worthy place on this list.
Possibly another surprise inclusion, but when we talk about singers that have been underrated, then Karen Carpenter would be top of the list. Her voice was, simply put, a joy to listen to.
Singing with her brother, Richard, they produced a great range of music over 14 years. But, that music all had something in common. Karen’s laid-back, easy voice. Even on the uptempo songs, she kept things very simple.
Or throwing her arms around, just that sound. She used the natural emotion in her voice to do it all for her. She had, of course, started as the drummer and wasn’t keen on being at the front. But, with that voice, there was nowhere else she could be.
And despite all the noise…
Along with effects pedals and silly hats, they were the #1 selling music act in America in the 70s. Their first meaningful single was The Beatles’ song “Ticket To Ride.” Released in 1969, it was a moderate success in America, reaching #64 on the chart.
However, it was the next few years where we saw songs and performances that can only be called memorable. Their first #1 in America also reached #6 in the UK and was successful in other countries. That was “Close To You.” The song that you might say launched them.
There followed a string of classic songs, “We’ve Only Just Begun.” Followed by “For All We Know” and “Superstar.” And, in 1972, what many would say was their finest recording, “Goodbye To Love.”
An almost endless catalog of classic songs…
I could continue to list them all, but it is easier just to say check out the album Carpenters Gold – Greatest Hits. Rarely do you find greatest hits albums where every song is a classic. Yet, this is one such album.
Karen Carpenter was lost to us on the 4th of February 1983. Never again would we get to hear a new track featuring that voice. The strain of being at the front and the pressure of it all just got to her. She developed severe anorexia and died of heart failure. A tragic loss of a wonderful singer.
Any list like this would not be complete without Tina. A versatile voice, she can handle the big stadium power ballads and the softer ones. And she can rock with the best of them.
She burst onto the scene with then-husband Ike with the song, “River Deep-Mountain High,” which is now a legend. It has been a song that stayed with her all her career. However, it is when she separated and divorced Ike that her career took off. She has produced some great records and is known as the “Queen of Rock and Roll.”
Long did she reign…
Selling over 100 million records across the globe has made her one of the biggest selling female artists of all time. Her biggest selling single to date has been “Private Dancer“. Although, she is probably best known for the epic song, “What’s Love Got to Do with It.”
There are far too many singles and big songs to list here. Once again, it is best just to go to the Greatest Hits albums. This is one of just many. You can learn more in our detailed article, The Best Tina Turner Songs of All Time.
She has retired now, after 60 years of knocking herself out, and is settled in Switzerland with her husband. In terms of pure Rock and adrenalin, we are unlikely to see her equal ever again. There are plenty of her fans who will say she was always “Simply the Best.”
Another legendary female singer who started in Country circles but then went far further. Ronstadt could handle everything from Country, Pop, Rock, and even semi-operatic. She even had The Eagles as her backing band for a while until they hit it big.
Her vocal range was ordinary by some standards. But, her tone and pitch were exceptional. She excelled when it was time to turn up the volume, as shown with the track, “Tumbling Dice.”
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote it, and Ronstadt gave it a female edge. It was taken from her album, Simple Dreams. But, we also had some basic Pop, “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.” And, some Country, in a wide range of styles like “Silver Threads And Golden Needles.”
At her best…
That was when singing emotional ballads. No histrionics; she let her voice and natural feelings carry the songs. “Long Long Time” is a good example.
And, when in collaboration with Aaron Neville for this huge hit, “Don’t Know Much.” Without a doubt, one of the great female voices of the 70s.
Another singer who crossed genres. Whether it was R&B, Soul, Gospel, Jazz, or Rock n Roll, the song got the “Etta James treatment.” Her deep and earthy voice was unique and made her stand out from her contemporaries.
She had a tough life, fighting heroin addiction and violently abusive partners, but she was a natural survivor. She was once described as being a “take no prisoners singer.” I can understand where that came from. No one packed a punch like Etta James.
Likewise, she could take on sensitive songs like “At Last.” Or, belt out her version of “I Just Want To Make Love To You.” Pure energy and emotion in every performance. Young singers could learn a lot from her.
Nina Simone’s musical abilities spanned a range of genres. She gave us Gospel, Jazz, Folk, Blues, and R&B. All delivered in a rich, soulful voice. Her jazz influences often showed through with her improvisations, which gained her a big reputation. She started her career by having to change her name to Nina Simone. This was to avoid the wrath of family members who accused her of playing “The Devil’s music.”
Her contralto voice was able to fuse Pop, Gospel, and even classical styles, especially those of JS Bach. She gave us some great live performances, notably at Ronnie Scotts in London.
From 1964-1974, she was an active member of Civil Rights groups. She moved to Holland to get away from old habits and to try and ease her mental problems. Then on to France, where she died in 2003, aged 70. She might be best remembered for “Ain’t Got No – I Got Life.”
Shirley Bassey was born the youngest of six children in Cardiff, South Wales, in 1937 and brought up in the nearby area of Splott. I don’t suppose too many readers have been to Splott. I have. It isn’t the most peaceful or refined of places. Can I put it that way? We can, therefore, imagine a tough childhood.
She began performing as a teenager and became the first person born in Wales to have a UK number one. “As I Love You” hit the top spot in 1959. It was taken from the album, The Bewitching Miss Bassey.
Over the next fifty years, she covered songs in every genre in her inimitable style. There is simply no one quite like her for that powerful voice coupled with a cheeky, almost naughty style and persona.
The Original Bond Girl?
Perhaps what she will be most remembered for are her recordings of the theme songs for three different James Bond films. She sang “Goldfinger,” “Diamonds are Forever,” and “Moonraker.” The only artist ever to have been given the honor.
Shirley was given a CBE in 1993 and made a Dame in 2000 by Queen Elizabeth II. She did an amazing 45-minute set at Glastonbury in 2007 that brought the festival to a standstill.
Her achievements are far too many to include here. But, we should mention that she is the only singer to have had hit records on the charts for over six decades. She has now pretty much retired from music, although her last album, I Owe It All To You, was only released in 2020.
Of all her songs…
For me, mention the name of Dame Shirley, and one comes immediately to mind. Not the James Bond ones, great as they were, but “Big Spender.”
These days she spends most of her time working for her charities and still sings at their functions sometimes. She is irreplaceable; there is only one Dame Shirley Bassey.
It is the fashion in today’s music to try and generate emotion in a song using a range of vocal techniques. One of those is called “Coloratura.” This is where the singer adds embellishments and improvisations to the basic tune.
These can include trills, a vocal run, or even jumping to notes over a wide range. Some seem to prefer this type of performance. They consider it displays what they call “vocal athleticism.” Also, some think that it adds emotion to the song.
Finding Emotion In The Performance
It does do that, but the question that should be asked is… does it improve the song? Some think that it adds emotion to the song. But, if it is emotion in the performance you are looking for, then you don’t need to look any further than Billie Holiday.
“Lady Day,” as she was sometimes known, was born in 1915 and had a troubled existence in so many ways. And, it seemed like that troubled life was poured into every note she sang. If young singers want to learn emotion in a song, then you need not look any further than Billie Holiday.
Songs like “Strange Fruit,” recorded in 1939, confirmed her place amongst the greatest. A song lyrically played out against a backdrop of lynchings and extreme racial prejudice, it was one of the first songs to say “enough.”
When so many families were missing, and worse, mourning loved ones, she recorded “I’ll Be Seeing You,” a sentimental jazz song that became a standard. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she wrote songs as well, good ones. One of the best examples of her work was “God Bless The Child.”
Once again, she records a song that has truth in it that may have offended some people, as did “Strange Fruit.” “God Bless The Child” references the bible heavily and makes a serious point.
She says people say they believe in the bible, but it doesn’t make them treat each other any better. I would agree with that even today. It has had some excellent covers, the best probably by Blood Sweat and Tears.
Some have said that she had a limited range. There may be some truth in that. But, to be a great singer, do you need a big range? I don’t think so. Not always.
There are plenty of singers around who have a wide vocal range. But, I wouldn’t put them in the company of Billie Holiday. Not in her class. It was her passion and the way she delivered a song that puts her in this position on my list. In that respect, no one can match her, Coloratura’s or not.
She died at age 44 in 1959, the victim of years of alcohol and other abuse. But, we have a great body of work to remember her by. And, a very interesting book, Billie Holiday – Lady Sings the Blues.
And so, to the very best of the best female singers. Known as the “First Lady of Song,” it is a title that is well-deserved.
She has sung many great songs and performed with many of the greatest bands and orchestras of her day. Her recorded work is considered some of the finest performances by a female singer.
Her rendition of “Someone To Watch Over Me,” recorded at Abbey Road in London with the London Symphony Orchestra, is one. Then there was Lullabies of Birdland. A compilation of her best from the late 40s and 50s.
Her collaborations with Louis Armstrong were the stuff that is placed in the history books. Especially tracks like “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
She also worked with Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich, and just about every big name of the time. Ella was a pioneer, and her songs and performances don’t lose anything with age.
Nearly Didn’t Have Her At All
She had wanted to be a dancer, and as a homeless 17-year-old from Harlem, she turned up for an Amateur Talent Night. The act before her was also a dance act. She realized they were better and panicked and sang instead. She won the best performance of the night. The rest is history.
We should find out the names of the dancers that went on before her and thank them. Think what we would have missed if they hadn’t been there.
Probably the best there has ever been in any genre, at any time. No histrionics, just a wonderful silky smooth tone and perfect pitch and enunciation. She didn’t have the range that some could muster, but it hardly mattered. The voice was special in every way. Tone, pitch, timing, perfect in everything.
Still today, she is one of the most streamed artists, especially this little gem recorded with Count Basie. Stevie Wonder referred to her in his song “Sir Duke” when he sings, “With a voice like Ella’s ringing out, there was no way the man could lose.”
And it is with her collaboration with Duke Ellington that most remember her. Fortunately, she recorded those songs. She was very special indeed.
Looking for More Incredible Female Musicians?
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Best Female Singers – Final Thoughts
So, what did the girls give us? In many ways, at least as much, if not more, than their male counterparts. The list of the great female solo singers could just go on. Not so for the men.
The songs and performances are timeless and will always live on because of their quality. Let’s hope the new pretenders to the throne, the new girls on the block, can go on and give us the same in the future.
Until next time, happy listening.